First Experience Shooting a Prom

I was shooting for Jason Lioh, a friend photographer who acquired a rather unusual assignment this time: a Prom Night for a prestigious college in Malaysia, Kolej Tuanku Ja'afar. Why unusual? Prom is not exactly a very widely practiced tradition in Malaysia, and we only get to see them mostly on American TV dramas. The Prom was held in a grand ballroom of a Five Star hotel, The Westin Hotel which was situated at Bukit Bintang, the heart of Kuala Lumpur. I have been covering really odd assignment lately, including shooting a marathon and getting myself drenched wet in rain last weekend, so shooting a Prom night should really add to the continuity of unusual stuff I have been doing lately. 

In this blog entry, I shall be sharing some of my favourite photographs from the night, as well as my experience first time shooting a prom. It was not exactly anything that far apart from covering a wedding dinner reception in Malaysia which usually do happen in a reception hall anyway, but of course, in a different type of event, the challenges faced have been rather different too. 

All images were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital Lenses 11-22mm F2.8-3.5, 50mm F2 macro and 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 (non-SWD)

The Grand Ballroom  of Westin Hotel KL. Do take note of the available ambient light, which was constructed of very unpleasing colors for people photography. It was unfavorably dim too. 

Some establishing and detail shots before the Prom started. 

1) The Need of Flash Photography

The Ballroom, venue of the Prom night was extremely dim. Only the stage area was brightly lit with spotlight, but everywhere else in the ballroom was not only dark, but the available lighting consisted of two very destructive colour for the skin tone: either blue or magenta cast. Shooting with only the available light, you will get exactly the colour cast, creating only blue or magenta cast photographs, as shown in the first two photographs you have seen above. The main task of the night was to shoot a lot of people shots, especially the students who probably have not made themselves looked any better in their lives before, and appearing in that most expensive and most ellegant dress, with professionally applied make-up and hair, the blue and magenta cast would seriously ruin the shots. Oh did I mention it was very dark too? I checked, shooting at ISO1600 without flash, my F2.8 lens would provide me with about 1/10sec of shutter speed, or less. That would not be sufficient to freeze moments, and achieve adequately sharp photographs of people shots. I need at least 1/50-1/60 sec or faster, and I did not intend to push beyond ISO1600 on my Olympus system. 

Hence, the only quick and practical solution to all the above problems: dim lighting and strong destructive color cast, would be engaging the use of a reliable external flash. I had my Olympus FL-36R with me, and I used the flash for 99% of my photographs that night. I can even say that It was the flash that saved all the shots of the night, providing much needed boost in illumination to properly light my subjects so I can shoot below ISO1600 (hence controlling ugly noise from Olympus camera, which is not their best strength) and still achieve sufficient minimum shutter speed for practical shooting. More importantly, the neutral color from the flash helped a great deal in maintaining accurate colours, specifically skin tone. I know there are many people who argued the preference of available light photography, and how they think flash destroys the original essence of a photograph. As much as I do want to use the available light as much as possible to maintain the natural look, I have to conclude that, there are just circumstances that Flash Photography, can save lives. This Prom night was a living evidence. Flash is not your enemy, it will improve your photography, if you allow it to. 

For my flash shooting, off stage, my settings were ISO800-1000, shutter speed at 1/40sec to 1/60sec, aperture wide open (F2-F2.8). If I was shooting a group shot, I stopped down the aperture to F4 or F5.6 to have more Depth of Field. Nonetheless, the beauty of using smaller sensor cameras such as Olympus system is having twice as much depth of field in comparison to Full Frame. Consequently, I can engage wider aperture to gather as much ambient light as possible and allowing the flash to spread more evenly, yet at the same time having twice the DOF of full frame (F2.8 on 4/3 system has equivalent DOF of F5.6 on FF) and I do not have to stop down the aperture that much further to get everything I need in focus. 

Playing with flare. Image slightly out of focus, but I really like the overall outcome of this photograph.

The Entertainment of the night was all done in house, with students performing live, including singing and dancing. 

As you have seen so far, stage lighting was rather good. 

Now, away from the stage, it was a different story. I used the flash to kill off the ambient light and produce a better balanced photograph. Do take note the presence of noise in the background, I could have gotten rid of them in Noise Reduction processing if I wanted to, so don't make a big deal out of this. I presented my images as straightforward as possible here. 

The flash produces amazing skin tone, enough warmth to evoke the "pleasing" feeling. However, shooting at such close range, blown up highlight is another concern. I have tried many flash diffusing technique, but have not come up with an effective one just yet. I would usually use bounced off ceiling whenever possible, but the ceiling of the ballroom was just too high. 

2) The need to use Wide Angle and Tele-Photo lenses. 

There are many photographers that give really impractical advise for learning photographers, and the most constant one that I have heard over and over again is how you should just stick to one camera, and one lens for a year or more to develop your vision and getting to know photography a little deeper. Sticking with one camera, I agree, but definitely not sticking to one lens. I am not making this conclusions on my own, but I have observed so many of my friends who are "stuck" to their favourite choice of focal lengths that if they move out from their comfortable focal lengths, they just do not know what to do, or simply cannot do anything useful from the alien focal lengths. People who shoot with 50mm only will have trouble shooting wide angle or tele-photo range. And in this Prom shooting, it was these two extremes that are needed. 

The Ballroom were filled with over 30 round tables (each table that seats 10 people) and that left very little moving room for the photographer. In this sort of events, the people come in groups, and usually LARGE groups. Having your back pressed at the wall, or the edge of table, you just need to fit everyone, and wide angle lens is god-sent in times like this. My 11-22mm is not exactly an ultra wide angle lens (7-14mm would be a true wide angle lens) but at 11mm, it was just sufficient for most wide indoor shooting, without compromising too much of distortion. And I found myself using more of the 11-22mm than usual in this shooting situation. The beauty of this lens is the zoomable to 22mm, which came very handy when I did not need the lens to be that wide. Yes prime lenses are great, and we all love using prime lenses, but zoom lens just gives you that extra convenience and flexibility which you would really cherish in critical shooting conditions, and I was very thankful that the 11-22mm is a wide zoom lens. 

The stage was separated by the dance floor, and after the dance floor it was the VIP table. As one of the official photographers I was allowed to go near the stage and shoot close up, but I knew better and not abuse this advantage. I did went in near, but I made sure my appearance was very brief to snap just one or two shots, in order not to appear as an annoyance or block the view of the audience. Therefore, I needed a working distance for the rest of the stage shots (like the other 95% of the shots) and the tele-photo lens was the answer. Bear in mind that the 50-200mm lens that I was using has effective wide aperture of F2.8-3.5, and when zoomed in at 100mm (equivalent to 200mm on 35mm format) the widest aperture is still open at F2.9. Having such bright zoom lens, and the massive focal length to work with (longest 200mm, which is 400mm equivalent on 35mm format) seriously gave me a lot of freedom to shoot from a distance, and not obstruct the audience, or show my back to them too often. 

I think at one point or another we hear people say that "zoom photographers are lazy photographers", or shooting with long lens would make you a lazy photographer. True to a certain extent, but when you need a zoom lens, and when you need a tele lens, you just need them. When you have a luxury to choose and shoot whatever you want, of course it is easy to say whatever you want or form your own philosophy and ideas. But each lens was designed for specific purpose in mind, and they will fulfill their purpose when the circumstances require them to. You cannot deny the importance of a good tele-photo lens, as well as a wide angle zoom. If you choose to ignore those lenses in your usual photography shooting sessions, how would you be able to use them, when you are expected to perform and produce shots? Photography, like most things in life, is all about being practical. 

More flare play. Not everyone will love this kind of shot. However, I have done the standard, ordinary, properly exposed and techically perfect shots, like many dozens of them on the same performer. For some shots, I tend to try something unusual, just for the kick of it. 

Kin of love the rainbow effect. 

All flares and special effects aside, I do take "normal" photographs. 

You gotta admit normal photographs can get boring when you repeat them too many times. Backlit and flare can add some excitement. 

Gotta love the stage lighting. How I wish the entire Ballroom was lit so nicely. 

3) Shooting JPEG, and delivering images SOOC. 

One of the agreement for this assignment was that, at the end of the event, images had to be delivered on the spot, straight out of camera (SOOC). As much as I hate spending too much time in front of computer post-processing my images, I must admit that I would have preferred to spend some time editing the photographs to make sure they look their best for delivery. However, I was not given such luxury this time, and I just have to make sure everything was done right in camera. Shooting JPEG was not alien to me, but we all have to be extra careful, after having the convenience of shooting RAW all this time. 

I think white balance is the main concern when shooting JPEG. After all, if RAW was the option, you can always play with the accurate tuning, being previewed on your computer screen, and you can make all the fine-adjustment needed to achieve the final look that you want, without any consequence. Having to get it right on JPEG, most professional photographers would opt for custom white balance. I have used Olympus cameras all these while, and I have come to trust their reliability when it comes to white balance and colour output. The white balance engine was working very well, this was especially true with flash photography. My images turn out consistently good and the colour was balanced. 

Being young, and being free

Even the guys look astonishing for the night

All the difficulties in technicalities aside, the shooting for the Prom night was rather straightforward, and nothing out of the ordinary I must say. 90% of the shots were posed people shots, and I just had to point the camera and snapped away. As for the stage events, I just shot whatever happened on the stage. There was not so much running around involved, and of course it was not as exhausting as a full day typical Malaysian Chinese wedding shoot. Heck, even last week's marathon shoot was a lot more physically demanding. For this Prom, it was taking place in a fully air-conditioned room. And the live music was really good too, as I was shooting smiles after smiles, capturing possibly one of the most beautiful and memorable event of these young adults' lives, it was indeed an interesting shooting experience. 

Crowned Prom Princess

My favourite photograph of the night. If my understanding of decisive moment is correct, this has got to be one of it. 

Prom King and Queen

I believe it is important to be exposed to different photography genres and different shooting conditions, to allow us to come back and have a more rounded, mature and refreshed view on photography in general. It is especially crucial to keep an open mind, and not close it based on some older generation photographer's advise of what to do and what not to do. Those words of wisdom should encourage you to grow, not restrict you. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your own experimentation and shooting experience, how much you have shot and how much you have been exposed to in the world of photography, and how willing you are to learn from your mistakes, improve and strive to be a better photographer. There are many photography practice that require you to "edit" (not post-process, but filter out bad shots, and select the best out of a series of photographs) your work, which would mean, out of a hundred photographs, just choose one or two best shots which you think are worth showcasing, and discarding the rest. In real world photography, when results matter, you do not have that kind of flexibility. And when you always practice strict editing of work, you are disillusioned with the fake reality of "its ok to screw up". I am trained and trained hard in the background of "getting it right ALL the time" and maintaining high hit rates in any shooting sessions. Regardless if it was my own shutter therapy session, or real shooting for paid assignment. JOe McNally said "One Oh Shit wipes out three Attaboys". 

There are many alternatives to get a job done. It is the photographer's job to find the solution that matches his own style and preferences best, and create his own workflow to accomplish the goals. 


  1. Hello Robin,
    Thank you for sharing those great images and insight on prom shooting. As I may shoot for our company dinner this year, your insight will be handy. Normally our company engaged outside photographer for their photography assignment but now the management seems to like my work. I thank you for that...Practice, practice, practice.
    Actually I have learned a lot from your blog. Thank you.
    May you have a great evening.
    John Ari Ragai

    1. Thanks John. Glad that I could help in any way I can here.

  2. Robin, I have been reading your blog consistently ever since Kirk Tuck pointed me to it, but this is the first time that I have felt compelled to add a Reply.

    I really like your attitude about using the right tools for the job at hand, and ignoring what others might have to say about such things as flash, zoom lenses (wide-angle and telephoto), auto White Balance, etc. I am very curious as to how you used your FL-36R flash for the "off stage shots". Was it on the camera? Did you use any sort of light modifier on your flash (I use Rogue Flash-Bender in situations like this)? Was it in TTL or manual mode? Regardless of whether you actually answer these questions or not, I do want to say that I thought you got some great results by using a single flash unit!

    1. Hello Gregg,
      Thanks so much for your kind compliments and following my blog, I still think there is so much more for me to learn and improve on. And yes, I have been learning a great deal even by just reading Kirk's blog.

      I mounted the FL-36R flash on my E-5 at all times, and I had an al-cheapo omni-bounce diffuser cap on it all the time. I tilt the flash 45 degrees up, and it was set to TTL. However, I think it was the settings that do matter, I used shutter speed 1/50-1/60sec (for people shots, not for stage or anything moving), widest aperture (of course for group shots I do stop down a bit) and ISO800-1000. The higher ISO setting sort of allows the flash to spread more evenly.

    2. Thanks Robin. I have the Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce diffusers for my Canon flashes, so maybe I should also look for one for my Olympus FL-600R flash as well. I like your idea of tilting the flash up by 45 degrees while using this dome diffuser. The Rogue Flash-Bender does a really nice job, but it is a lot larger (but I guess a larger light is a little softer light - buy not much at this scale and distances).

      I have also had really good luck with the camera on Manual settings (shutter = 100, aperture = wide), while leaving the flash unit on TTL. I'll remember to bump up the ISO a bit more, but contrary to what every reviewer on the internet says, I don't really like taking the ISO above 1000 - 1200 on my OM-D E-M5 (but that's a whole 'nother discussion).

  3. Hi Robin, I have been following your blog since Kirk pointed us during the Malaysian protests. What's more interesting to me is that Malaysia was the only Asian country I ever visited, I went there for one week during a business conference, and I stayed at the Westin hotel, and spent time shooting at Bukit Bintang and KL Bird Park, so I was very excited to see your photos of familiar places, even the same birds that I shot at the bird park.

    Just wanted to pass by and say hello, I really like your images and entries (especially the long ones), and very glad to hear and read about Malaysia where I'd wish to back there again.

    Maybeone day I will make a post on my blog about my trip to Malaysia and share it with you, keep the good work.

    1. Hello mshafik,
      Thanks for commenting, and thanks so much for the kind words about my photos and Malaysia.
      If you do come by Malaysia again do let me know !

  4. Hi Robin:
    Regarding diffusers on flash, I like using the Gary Fong full cloudy dome diffuser and set to 45 degrees (like you do) for extra reach in TTL works well for me. Gary Fong diffusers are well know in North America and inexpensive. Of course this I use with Nikon external SB800 flash and camera for paid work and a rotating flash grip to keep it up top. The front white disc section at the top of the half dome is inverted curve so this diffuser actually acts a bit like a false white ceiling if your ceilings are too high for bounce. If anyone else you know has one, I would recommend trying one to see if you like it. Fittings for any flash type or model. My SB800 has the same flash head size at top as the Oly FL36R (I have both flashes - FL36R for PEN websize photos sales use.) The Gary Fong dome is bigger than the small omni bounce diffuser, but I like it very much. My Camera is kept on manual settings, but I switch ISO settings a lot based on distance to subjects usually between 250 to 1600 iso for Nikon, as SB800 is a strong flash. I also use 640 to 800 a lot from moderate distance photos indoors. Dialing down the flash intensity a bit can also help to mix the ambient light with flash more for less flashy look. Just wanted to send out my ideas on other options on diffusers that are popular here.
    Nice work on the prom night candid photos, I enjoyed them, and also liked the detail photos and room view with colours.

    1. Thanks Adrian for the suggestion and recommendations !! Really appreciate it, and will check out the Gary Fong diffusers. I have seen some photographers using it, never tried it myself.
      Thanks for the kind compliments too !! This is the exact thing I love about blogging, you get very useful feedback from kind people like yourself !!

    2. Hi Robin:
      Thanks for comments!!
      although I have taking wedding photos for 8 years now, only the last 2.5 years (with Full Frame Nikon cameras), been playing around more so with mixing strength settings on flash and ambient iso settings more than ever before and you self-learn as you do so, to what works best to get the lighting ambience of room in photos. Been pushing to see how far the new camera would go in mixed lighting. This would work for Olympus cameras and flashes as well with FL36R or the stronger FL50 (I don't have FL50) and certainly not exclusive to FF or Nikon/Canon. A good small dome diffuser can help tame a strong flash for more even softer lighting and bounce and help fill background a bit by spreading its light out, but as you ramp up camera iso to 1000 iso or much greater, best sometimes to also dial down the flash intensity a bit to avoid burnout of closeup people faces if nearby (caused by very high iso with flash in close range), and light people with subtler fillflash (set dial to either -0.3, -0.7 to -1.0 or even more, on back of flash unit). This way you can maintain the coloured lights of the DJs lightshow in background or getting more colour in walls behind people and add bit subtler flash fill to people to mix lighting and maintain some white balance control from flash fill settings. Colour of DJ lights (besides hitting walls) can accent peoples hair and clothing which also looks nice. All while in TTL setting and manual control on camera to control aperature and shutter. Happy to help out for anyone in your blog audience wanting to learn more about flash photography! It is fun to experiment what works with your flash/camera and then remember best combination of settings for next job or even your own personal photos. Have a good day!

  5. Somewhat upon gazing at the photos, I just knew my uni life missed something =(

    Good tips bro btw...

    1. Hey Cyril,
      That college is like one of the most prestigious, and high end college in Malaysia, hence they have the prom. I do not think usual uni students would want to fork out thousands just to spend on one night !!! Though I must admit this prom thing seems so surreal, after seeing so many TV dramas and movies ahahah.

  6. Awww.. the young and innocent ones.. xD

  7. Hi Robin,
    I've read your reviews and admired your work. There is a simple truth that shines through both. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to photographic integrity. I'm tired of Internet trolls who read reviews and then plagiarise other's work and pretend that photography is their hobby - you never see their photographs.
    I've learnt loads from your blog by reading and shooting. Thanks.

    1. Hello Barry,
      Thank you so much for such kind words !!
      I think the part that separates me from the rest is being practical. People can quote some saying from old dead photographers, or refer to whatever rules and regulations there are on photography, but sometimes, when we shoot, we know some things work and some don't. What I do on this blog is just to share my experience, what I went through while I did my shooting. I am not quite "there" yet, but every step in the journey counts.

  8. Wow! Nice pictures! I love to take pictures too. Having such a detailed post will teach beginners how to take beautiful photos. Your blog is a great help to everyone. Here, one can learn what flash photography is, and how to do it correctly.

  9. That's nice. Still remember my prom, unforgettable memories.

  10. Hello Robin, i like your post a lot. I am going to be shooting a prom in a few days here in China, it's also a big deal here since it is rare for this part of the world. :) I find your post very informative. thanks s哦much for sharing your experience and thoughts. most atimes when i shoot ballroom events i tend to tilt my flash (a Yongnuo 560 II) a full 90 degrees up with the white card lifted up and allow it to bounce off the ceiling of the room. That tends to give a nice spread of light especially when the celieng has some variations and patterns, it gives a great feel to the images. It's quite a common practice but i still thought i'd share, who knows.. :D Thanks once again for your post,